Last week Brendan Rodgers left St Petersburg urging Liverpool to buy "some men". On Thursday night he could only salute their strength of character. Such is the wildly contrasting nature of his Liverpool team. Their one constant over two legs against Zenit St Petersburg was defensive lapses that ultimately derailed hope of another astonishing European comeback at Anfield.
Pride and regret were the overriding emotions for the Liverpool manager following a commanding performance and victory that ultimately brought no reward. There were 71 minutes remaining in the tie and a Jamie Carragher error had left Liverpool requiring four unanswered goals to stay in Europe. This was not only a stern test of the team's development under Rodgers but the character he has often stated this season is lacking. They passed on both counts but even that did not suffice against the champions of Russia.
Two exquisite free-kicks from Luis Suárez and a first Liverpool goal for Joe Allen put the Anfield club in sight of a place in the last 16, after Hulk had appeared to put Luciano Spalletti's team into an unassailable lead. The fourth eluded them, however, and Liverpool's last hope of silverware slipped away agonisingly on the away goal.
It was a cruel way for Carragher's illustrious European career to finish although, as Rodgers pointed out, it was two late goals in Russia that cost Liverpool this tie. The challenge now is to prevent deflation spreading into the league campaign.
For all the stirring European escape acts Anfield has witnessed, Liverpool had overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit only once before. That was in November 1991 when the current first-team coach, Mike Marsh, scored and starred in a 3-0 victory over Auxerre in the Uefa Cup. The latest recovery mission was to be built on patience, or so the Liverpool manager had claimed, but the home side's performance was as energised as the crowd.
Zenit, every time they took possession in the first half and in the intelligent way they dealt with the pressure of potentially conceding a fourth costly goal, were the team that displayed the composure if not the attacking threat of the first leg. Their midfield trio of Axel Witsel, Igor Denisov and Roman Shirokov worked tirelessly to restrict Liverpool threading passes through for Suárez.
Suárez screamed for a penalty against Luís Neto when the ball bounced up against the hapless central defender's upper arm. The Dutch referee, Bjorn Kuipers, was not interested. Suárez then lambasted Jordan Henderson for attempting to beat Zenit's goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev from an ambitious angle, having dispossessed Aleksandr Anyukov, when the Uruguayan was better placed inside.
Then came a moment to haunt Carragher on his 150th European appearance for Liverpool. Zenit had threatened only once in the opening 20 minutes and it was Carragher's experience that foiled them, the veteran leaning into Danny's shoulder to prevent him reaching Shirokov's flick into the area. Their next foray was a calamity for the defender. Sergei Semak's challenge on Steven Gerrard rebounded to Carragher just inside the Liverpool half. His first touch was awkward, the second played an undercooked back-pass into the path of Hulk who strolled forward and beat José Reina with ease.
It was now four or nothing for Liverpool. The first arrived after Daniel Agger was unceremoniously dumped on the edge of the Zenit area by Nicolas Lombaerts. Suárez swept the resulting free-kick between Hulk and Danny at the end of the wall and into the unguarded half of Malafeev's goal.
A second before half-time was necessary if the Russian champions were to be seriously unnerved and it almost arrived when Gerrard drilled a free-kick to the back post. Agger was primed to pounce until Anyukov glanced the ball clear. But with two minutes remaining in the first half the tie and the comeback were alive for Liverpool. José Enrique exchanged passes with Henderson on the left and from the byline crossed on to the head of Allen. Malafeev saved the header at point-blank range but Allen converted the rebound.
Liverpool tore into a Zenit team that had won only one of its last nine European away fixtures. Rodgers' side could easily have had a penalty within five minutes of the restart when Tomas Hubocan stooped to clear a Suárez header into the area and appeared to use his arm. Again the referee said no.
Kuipers did agree with Suárez's appeal for a free-kick following a trip by Neto 25 yards from the Zenit goal. Liverpool's No7 again took over the set-piece duties from Gerrard and Anfield erupted as he delivered a stunning finish inside Malafeev's left-hand post.
Amid the pandemonium Rodgers introduced Jonjo Shelvey and Oussama Assaidi as Liverpool went all out for an astonishing victory but the departure of Allen, who appeared to limp off, disturbed the home display.
Gerrard and Shelvey went close late on but Zenit were increasingly comfortable as 90 minutes approached and Reina made a fine save to prevent Hulk killing off hope. It soon expired, however.